Hogs hold off Illini; face No. 1-seeded Jayhawks on Saturday

Arkansas’s Devante “Devo” Davis drives by Illinois’s RJ Melendez during a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament Thursday, March 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (UA Athletics)

In his two previous years as an Arkansas Razorback, Devante “Devo” Davis has saved some of his best basketball for the NCAA Tournament.

Nothing has changed for the junior Hog from Jacksonville. Davis played another key role in coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks’ advancing to the second round of the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament as eighth-seeded Arkansas topped the ninth-seeded Illinois Illini, 73-63, Thursday afternoon in Wells Fargo Arena, at Des Moines, Iowa.

The Razorbacks will face the West’s No. 1-seeded and defending national champion Kansas Jayhawks at 4:15 p.m. Saturday in a contest televised on CBS.

Kansas walloped the Howard Bison, 96-68, Thursday with head coach Bill Self sidelined to rest after having a heart procedure late last week. Assistant coach Norm Roberts coached in his stead. The Jayhawks are an early 4-point favorite.

Davis scored 16 points, grabbed 5 rebounds, made 4 steals, blocked a shot and had an assist, but it was his 3-pointer with 5:49 to play that halted an Illini run and gave the Hogs the impetus to get over the hump when it felt like the game might be slipping away from them after leading by as many as 17 points.

As you well know, the Razorbacks have held double-digit leads at various junctures this season, only to fritter so many games away at crunch time.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Kansas (NCAA Tournament)
When: 4:15 p.m. Saturday, March 18
Where: Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa

While Illinois would cut Arkansas’ lead to 5 late, the Hogs, bolstered by Davis’ clutch shot as well as key plays from Ricky Council IV in the final two minutes, salted the lllini away. Council made a flying layup and two free throws to secure the Arkansas victory.

Council, a junior transfer from Wichita State, came up big for the Hogs, leading Arkansas with 19 points and all rebounders with 10 boards for a double-double.

Illinois scored the first basket, but after the Hogs missed a bevy of shots early, they took the lead and never gave it up. A key to that was Arkansas making 22 of 29 free throws for 75.9%.

Council did yeoman’s work at the line nailing 11 of 12 opportunities. Had the Hogs not capitalized so well at the charity stripe, they would likely be headed out for spring break today instead of prepping to topple Kansas on Saturday.

Freshmen Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh played well in their first NCAA Tournament appearances. Black scored 12 points, rebounded 6 boards, made 2 steals and an assist, while Walsh scored 6 points, gathered 4 rebounds, made 3 steals, and an assist. Walsh energized the Hogs with his defensive tenacity and aggressiveness on the glass, keeping a lot of balls alive on the rim.

Nick Smith Jr. had an off night, missing 8 of 10 shots and scoring 6 points. His shot selection was a bit out of control. He played 28 minutes, but sat for the final minutes of the game after a poor shot led to an Illini fast break. That said Smith’s energy, quickness, and attitude is always an asset. He also always supports his teammates when he is on the bench.

Makhi Mitchell had another of his sneaky good games inside, playing solid defense and scoring opportunistically. He swatted three shots, altered others, grabbed 7 rebounds, and scored 9 points.

While the Hogs’ play at times had Arkansas fans on the edge of their seats as Illinois made their run, this was probably — along with their 76-73 victory over Auburn in the SEC Tournament last week — the Razorbacks’ best performance since upending Kentucky, 88-73, at Rupp Arena, on Feb. 7.

However, if the Hogs are going to keep on dancing beyond Saturday, the Razorbacks are going to have to come up with a monster performance to upset Kansas.

It might take their best effort of the year to top the defending champs. Even that might not be enough.

Alabama was deservedly the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, but Kansas could have been placed in that spot and ’Bama fans would have argued. The Jayhawks have the most Quadrant 1 wins of any team in the nation at 17 based on the Net Rankings, which is three more than any other squad in the nation. They won the Big 12 regular-season title, but lost to Texas in the semifinals before the Longhorns captured the tourney. The Big 12 is regarded as the best conference in the nation this year, and it’s not particularly close.

This will be the Hogs’ first meeting with Kansas since a 2005 in the Maui Invitational, when Stan Heath’s squad topped the Jayhawks, 65-64, in a loser’s bracket contest.

Arkansas’s Anthony Black drives by Illinois’s RJ Melendez during a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament Thursday, March 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

The Razorbacks last met the Jayhawks in the NCAA Tournament in the 1991. Roy Williams’ Kansas squad topped Nolan Richardson’s Hogs, 93-81, denying Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, and Oliver Miller a return trip to the Final Four as juniors.

Arkansas had a double-digit lead at halftime, but an injury to Miller left the Hogs outmatched inside. Miller played through the pain, but was a shadow of his normal self.

Big 12 Player of the Year and All-American Jalen Wilson (6-8, 225) leads the Jayhawks, averaging 20 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists a game. He’s a double-double machine, who is tough inside and has a solid 3-point shot.

Davis will likely be tasked with guarding freshman sharp-shooter Grady Dick. He’s 6-8, but if Davis or whomever gets the assignment can deny him the ball and pester him enough, it might affect how many treys he can get up as well as put a kink in the Jayhawks’ offensive flow because Dick is also an excellent passer.

However Dajuan Harris is the engine that makes Kansas run. The 6-2 guard is excellent at setting the table for his teammates and deft at getting his own shots when necessary. He’s also an outstanding defender, who is sure to give Arkansas’ ball handlers fits.

Kansas isn’t as tall as Self’s Jayhawks squads usually are, but they can run, score, and defend. Four starters average in double figures.

Arkansas’ offensive sloppiness isn’t a good omen. Kansas feasts off turnovers. The Razorbacks have to be stronger with the ball than they ever have been this season or the Jayhawks might eat them alive.

The Razorbacks are a stout defensive team and usually good on the boards. With a really strong shooting performance at all levels, the Hogs might make a game of it.

However, Razorbacks like Smith, Davis, and Council must be very disciplined with their shot selection. They have to take their opportunities, but this isn’t a game for quick heat checks.

If the Hogs take too many bad shots, Kansas will be off to the races. They might be anyway.